by Christina Stump
Pastor Jim raised cuttlefish.
Most days, they lived in the window tank between the main foyer and children’s church. I spent hours watching them. They looked like animated turkey-basters swimming through the living coral, meticulously maintained.
Pastor Jim kept his favorites in a tank at the parsonage. He trained them to swim figure-eights while flashing alternating dark and light stripes. And he trained them to pirouette like synchronized divers.
Pastor Jim named his cuttlefish after prophets. They had names like Enoch and Gideon and Samuel. He said cuttlefish speak with the voice of God. Cuttlefish have souls.
Pastor Jim’s cuttlefish lived in the baptismal waters on the day I assumed my faith.
I was nine years old and too young to know what I believed. I wore a new red velvet dress that my grandmother bought me for Christmas. Red is the color of blood, Jesus blood, washing over sins. Red is the color of the twelve cuttlefish—one for each disciple—that swarmed the bottom of the baptismal pool when I stepped into the briny water.
Pastor Jim cradled the back of my head against his chest and held my hands over my nose. I stared at the empty cross behind us. It was such a pretty cross. The wood was beveled, honey-colored. At its top there was a crown of thorns, like a bird’s nest. These weren’t instruments of torture. They’d been pacified, reconfigured. Just decorations.
The words of baptism are like wedding vows. “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he whispered like an incantation and dunked me in. But his hands slipped. I tripped backwards, plunging into the waters of salvation. I didn’t remember to close my eyes.
The cuttlefish swarmed around me in an inky cloud. They pulled me to the bottom of the tub. Their faces attached to my skin. They sucked at my fingertips, my earlobes, my ankles. They sucked and sucked until I was nothing but blood and bone, until even that was gone. They sucked out my eyes and latched onto my still pounding heart.
Cuttlefish are cannibals. Once they had consumed me, they set upon each other. They flashed in ribbons of white and black. Ridges like mountains grew on their backs. The smallest fish were swallowed up by the larger ones until only the biggest remained. The water was filled with ink and blood but was still somehow clear.
The blood was the blood of re-creation. It clotted around my bones. Formed arteries. Grew limbs. Blood bound my skin. It rebuilt me and transformed me. There was one cuttlefish left and I grasped it in my newly formed hand squeezing and squeezing until it spurted into the brine and was carried away to the place that darkness goes.
I became the cuttlefish. I wore their flesh as my flesh and drank their blood as my blood. And then I was alive.
I climbed out of the pool and there was Pastor Jim, small and trembling in a puddle of blood. Dressed all in white. And this is what I thought: He is pure. I am not. He is sacred. I am not. I would wear the stain of dead cuttlefish to my grave.
I looked over at the radiant congregation, rows upon rows of white hands—applauding politely—and white expressions—masking shock. They looked like candles on Christmas Eve, waiting for the fire. Just decorations. They were baptized in sacred water. I was baptized in blood.
Blood was everywhere. My hands dripped bits of cuttlefish into the draining tub. No one offered me a towel to dry my hands, so I reached up and swiped my bloody fingers across the foot of the cross.
Christina Stump is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University where she teaches first-year composition. When not writing or teaching, she can be found birding Ohio’s lakes and wetlands in search of the elusive Long-tailed Duck.